The theme of this year’s 72nd session of the U.N. General Assembly is a world “striving for peace.” This meeting of 193 member states comes at a time when one of its members, North Korea, is threatening nuclear conflict.
The threats from Pyongyang can no longer be disregarded and viewed as hyperbolic rhetoric. You don’t disregard threatening statements from a country that in this year alone launched 18 missiles and conducted a significant nuclear test, of a claimed hydrogen bomb, exceeding 100 kilotons. Of the missiles launched, two were intercontinental ballistic missiles with a range of 7,000 to 10,000 kilometers, thus capable of reaching Denver and Chicago. Intermediate range ballistic missiles were also successfully launched, with a range of 4,000 to 6,000 kilometers, capable of reaching Guam.
The 18 missiles launched, and the Sept. 3 nuclear test, were in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. This alone is amazing: a member of the U.N. brazenly disregarding 16 Security Council Resolutions, starting with Resolution 1695 in July 2006 to the most recent resolution, 2371, passed on Aug. 5. One has to question the efficacy of these resolutions sanctioning North Korea, given that they haven’t prevented North Korea from significantly enhancing its nuclear and missile capabilities.
The U.N. Security Council Resolution that passed on Sept. 11, however, is powerful in that oil imports of refined and crude oil will be capped at 8.5 million barrels a year, while textile exports, which accounted for $726 million, about a quarter of the North’s export income, are banned. With these and other provisions in the resolution, we may have sanctions that truly bite, and finally get North Korea’s attention.
We are now dealing with a North Korea that reportedly could have over 40 nuclear weapons, with a reported ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads and mate them to its arsenal of short-, intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles. Although it’s doubtful North Korea has a warhead that could re-enter the atmosphere without burning up, given the lack of testing required to establish this capability, I would caution that established scientific practices do not always apply to North Korea. The progress North Korea has made with its missile and nuclear programs is impressive, and they did it marching to their own tune. When North Korea threatens to use nuclear weapons to attack Seoul, Tokyo or Washington, we shouldn’t be dismissive.
Kim Jong-un has established North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, with the ballistic missiles necessary to make North Korea an existential nuclear threat to China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and eventually the U.S. Mr. Kim has made it abundantly clear that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons and, therefore, the United States, and others, should relent and recognize and accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.
Doing so would be a mistake. Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula should be our unwavering objective. Indeed, accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state would lead to a nuclear arms race in the region, with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and others eventually seeking their own nuclear weapons arsenal, despite U.S. extended nuclear deterrence commitments.
The next few months definitely will be tense, especially if North Korea launches a ballistic missile that could be viewed as an “imminent threat” to the U.S. or its allies. International law permits, and indeed the people demand that pre-emptive action be taken to intercept any ballistic missile that poses an imminent threat to the U.S. or its allies. North Korea must understand this.
Given North Korea’s provocative and threatening behavior, it must be frustrating for China, which conducts over 85 percent of the trade with North Korea and provides over 90 percent of North Korea’s crude oil requirements to realize that Mr. Kim appears to be totally dismissive of China and confident that China will not take any action to affect the status quo on the Korean Peninsula.
The stark reality, however, is that Mr. Kim continues to threaten the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and its race to enhance and permanently retain these programs affects the status quo, given that North Korea now threatens the region and the world with its nuclear weapons, motivating other countries to establish their own nuclear weapons deterrent capabilities. With this type of nuclear proliferation, the accidental use of a nuclear weapon is a real concern, as is the prospect of a nuclear weapon or fissile material finding its way to a rogue state or terrorist organization. In short, North Korea’s provocative actions have made the region and the world appreciably less secure.
In April 2003, China brought North Korea to the table with the U.S. to defuse a tense period, when North Korea quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty and was reprocessing plutonium spent fuel rods for nuclear weapons. Just prior to this April meeting, China had temporarily suspended shipment — ostensibly for mechanical problems — of crude oil to North Korea, via the Friendship Pipeline under the Yalu River. That brought North Korea to the negotiation table, which established the Six-Party Talks process convening in August 2003.
China has the leverage to again get North Korea to the table for unconditional exploratory talks with the U.S. These exploratory talks could lead to more formal negotiations, to include South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. And if it again requires that China temporarily — or even permanently — suspend crude oil shipments to North Korea to ensure the North’s participation, then it’s something China should do, in the peaceful pursuit of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
• Joseph R. DeTrani was the former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. The views are the author’s and do not represent any government agency or department.
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